In America, when someone does something careless that hurts us, the law allows us to go to the courts to seek compensation from that person. In significant part, this is what we mean when we say we are a society of laws. The law gives us the tools to use money damages as a way of making things right when someone does us wrong.
It’s not a perfect system. Money is only a rough substitute for what a car crash injury takes from us. Money is not freedom from pain. Money is not enjoyment of life. In most cases, money can only approximate compensation for the damage done by someone else’s wrongful conduct.
But still, our system of translating harm done into dollar values is better than the alternative. And so, as auto accident lawyers, it is often our job to distill the pain, suffering, and financial hardship our clients have suffered into a single number.
It is this number that people refer to when they ask “What is my car accident claim worth?”
In this blog post, we attempt to answer that question as best we can, by giving you a sense of how complex and uncertain that answer can be from one case to the next. Believe it or not, the value of a car accident claim is WAY more complicated than you might imagine.
The value or worth of a car accident claim comes down to the amount of compensatory damages Washington law allows a person injured in a car accident to recover from a wrongdoer (or more often, from the wrongdoer’s insurance company). There are two broad categories of compensatory damages under Washington law: economic (or special) damages, and non-economic (or general) damages.
Economic damages means “objectively verifiable monetary losses,” including:
Under Washington law, parties with legal liability for causing injuries in a car accident may have the right to pay economic damages over time.
Non-economic damages means “subjective, non-monetary losses,” including:
Unlike in other states, so-called punitive or exemplary damages are generally not available in car accident cases in Washington State.
Washington State law caps non-economic damages (as defined above) at 43 percent of the average annual wage in Washington multiplied by the accident victim’s life expectancy at the time of the collision (which cannot be less than 15 years). As of 2018, the average annual wage in Washington was $65,301. So, for a person with fifteen years of life expectancy, the maximum non-economic damage award recoverable under Washington law for an accident that happened in 2018 would be $421,191. For each additional year of life expectancy for an accident victim injured in 2018, that amount would rise by $28,079.
As you can see from these calculations, while Washington State law puts a cap on non-economic damages, that figure can still be quite large. For example, a 25 year-old male car accident victim with a 52 year life expectancy could recover up to $1.46 million in non-economic damages under Washington law.
In contrast to non-economic damages, under Washington law there is no cap on economic damages (as defined above). What a car accident costs a victim in out-of-pocket expenses, in effect, is what it is. And that can be a very significant number. We all know, of course, that medical expenses can rise very quickly, particularly if those include long-term therapy and the cost of adaptive devices for mobility or other functions. For example, the cost of treating and living with spinal cord injury-induced paralysis can easily run several million dollars over a lifetime.
Likewise, loss of income and loss of future business or employment opportunities can represent a substantial sum of money, particularly for younger accident victims. If the 25 year-old male accident victim mentioned above has a bright future as a small business owner that is cut short by an accident that leaves him with a permanent disability resulting from a traumatic brain injury, the estimates of his lost income can be significant.
In fact, in Washington, unlike in some other states, it is not uncommon for economic damages to exceed non-economic damages, even with the relatively generous cap on non-economic damages Washington law imposes.
You might think from the descriptions above that determining the worth of a car accident case is easy. After all, it doesn’t seem too complicated to add up out-of-pocket costs, and to plug numbers into the formula the capped non-economic damages. Right?
Mathematical formulas might seem straightforward, but only deceptively so. In fact, there is lots of uncertainty in what a case might worth, for three reasons. We discuss each of them below.
Yes, it seems simple to say that non-economic damages are just a tally of everything an accident costs you. And to some extent, that’s true. Lawyers for car accident victims ask their clients to collect all of the bills they’ve received for medical expenses relating to a car accident injury, for the cost of repairing property damaged in the accident, and for the cost of any services they’ve had to pay for to replace their own labor. These expenses are simple enough to add up, so long as you have the documentation to prove them.
But other parts of the economic damages calculation have more uncertainty to them. Loss of income and employment or business opportunities, for example, require looking into the past (“What would I have earned already?”) and, with even more uncertainty, looking into the future (“What might I have earned next month/year/decade?”). It takes creativity and diligence on the part of a car accident lawyer to assemble the evidence they might need to prove that their injured client had a bright and lucrative future ahead of them as an entrepreneur or skilled tradesman.
Under Washington law, the jury decides the amount of non-economic damages a person should receive. The jury cannot, however, be told about the formula for calculating the cap on non-economic damages. In other words, if a jury awards a person more than the cap, the court will reduce the award to the maximum, capped amount. But if the jury awards less than the cap, then that is what the accident victim gets. In other words, the cap is a ceiling on non-economic damages, not a floor.
Insurance companies and lawyers understand this rule. And so, part of any settlement negotiation is an argument about whether the accident victim’s lawyer will be able to prove at least the maximum, capped amount of non-economic damages. A lawyer’s job is to try to eliminate any doubt that the jury would award no less than the capped amount.
Finally, a dose of reality. The categories of damages above represent what a car accident victim has the right to recover as damages under Washington State law. But that doesn’t mean that in every case there is money to pay the victim that amount. Just as you can’t get blood from a stone, you can’t get (much, if any) money from a broke defendant with no insurance.
In assessing the value of a case, lawyers have to perform this reality check all the time. It is a harsh truth of our imperfect legal system that sometimes there’s no money or only limited money available to make things right for a car accident victim. In a very real sense, there is an element of randomness in who does you harm. If you get into an accident with an over-insured bank president, it’s more likely you will recover the full amount of your damages than if you get into an accident with a minimally insured teen driver.
These areas of uncertainty in not just calculating, but proving damages, and then finding parties who can pay those damages, are where car accident lawyers add value. Here at Boohoff Law, people sometimes ask us why they need a lawyer at all. If a car accident claim is just a matter of haggling with an insurance company, they wonder why they can’t just do that on their own.
And, fair enough. There are times when it’s probably not worth it to hire an attorney, such as when you get into a fender-bender that only causes property damage. Nine times out of ten, you can handle that discussion with the insurance company and get the compensation you deserve.
But it’s an entirely different situation when someone gets injured. Most non-lawyers wouldn’t have any idea how to prove to a jury the amount of future earnings an injured accident victim would have earned, or to make sure a jury empathizes with the pain and suffering of a victim enough to award at least the maximum capped amount of non-economic damages. And without being able to show you are ready and able to take a case to court and win maximum damages, there is no way to convince an insurance company to offer anything close to that amount as a settlement.
In other words, the worth of a car accident case depends, in significant part, on the talent and diligence of the attorney you choose to help you pursue your claim. The better the attorney’s reputation for out-working defense lawyers and for winning large jury verdicts, the higher the chances of your case being worth the highest amount possible under Washington law.
So how do you find an attorney who can make the most of your car accident claim?
Look for an attorney with a track record of success. You could spend days scanning the results of a Google search for a car accident lawyer. But out of those, there are only some who have an established track record of recovering large settlements and jury verdicts for clients. Of course, no reputable lawyer can guarantee the value of a case. But past success is as good an indication as any of a lawyer’s skill and reputation.
Also look for an attorney who surrounds themselves with a talented, multi-faceted team. Car accident claims can involve complex fact patterns and may require detailed investigation. Find a lawyer with the staff capabilities to dig into a car accident to find out not just what happened, but also to identify all of the parties who have legal liability to you and the ability to pay.
Finally, look for an attorney with a commitment to personal service. Lots of attorneys might claim to have a personal touch with their clients. But take the temperature of the office when you meet with the attorney for an initial consultation. Is this really a lawyer and team who will return your calls and make sure your questions get answered? Does this lawyer communicate empathy and understanding in a manner that makes you confident they can explain your pain and difficulty to a jury?
Choosing the right lawyer for your car accident claim can make a significant difference in the value of your claim. To learn more about the potential worth of your car accident claim, contact an experienced car accident lawyer today.
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